If Beale Street Could Talk opens with a quote from James Baldwin and a slow, sweeping violin score that will be heard many more times. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) walk along the edge of a New York City park, with greenery on one side and highways and cityscape on the other. Their clothes are coordinated in yellow and navy as if they belong to one another. The details of this outdoor world soon melt away, leaving only close-ups of the actors’ faces. They are looking into each other so deeply that nothing else exists. Not the problems that are about to come their way, the tragedy or heartaches that will soon eclipse their young lives.
Those stares will change over the course of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Baldwin’s novel about love, family, New York City and racism. The bliss of their budding romance will be put on hold when Fonny is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), by a racist white police officer (Ed Skrein). Not long after Fonny goes to jail, Tish reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Although Fonny’s father and Tish’s family toast to the new generation, Fonny’s deeply devout Christian mother and sisters receive the news less excitedly. They are the least of Tish’s worries, however, as now she must figure out how to make ends meet as an unwed pregnant 19-year-old separated from her partner by prison bars and thick glass.
Those gorgeous, longing stares at the beginning of the film grow resentful, hurt and frightened as the months wear on. It begins to feel uncomfortable to be so close to this much pain, but Jenkins’ camera is steady – and so is Tish’s resolve to fight for her love. Her mother Sharon (Regina King) defends her daughter against criticism and steps in to help her future son-in-law’s case.
In the movie, Jenkins enhances the subtleties of his actors’ performances, growing small personal moments into epics. Layne and James’ chemistry is sweet and believable, playing the parts of lifelong friends who committed to one another. Jenkins lavishes close-up after close-up on their young, hopeful faces, capturing each sly smile and direct glance. King gives a powerful performance as Tish’s determined mother who’s trying to do everything to protect her child’s chance at love and justice. Some of her most moving scenes have no words. After a meeting goes poorly, she cries and curses at having potentially botched the conversation that could have lead to a break in the case.Jenkins’ camera zooms in on Sharon’s hands clenched on a photo of Tish and Fonny, holding it slightly above her bowed head like an appeal to a higher power for help.
Barry Jenkins is an avowed fan of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, naming movies like Chunking Express and In the Mood for Love among his favorites. You can see echoes of influences in Jenkins’ feature debut Medicine for Melancholy in the shots where the movie’s couple trades smiles and flirty glances without any words. It’s also evident in Chiron’s longing stares at the camera throughout Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film, Moonlight. But in If Beale Street Could Talk, those close-ups are a way to show the audience that no matter what bars or glass comes between them,Tish and Fonny are still connected. The world can still melt away, not as clearly or as often as it used to, but they still look at each other in a way that might make you feel weak in the knees.
There’s a timeless quality to the film despite its specific setting. Jenkins employs very few pop culture or news references that might get in the way of the romantic drama, only late ’60s or early ’70s clothes and hairstyles clue us in. The earthy tones and warm color schemes of Fonny’s sculptures, the furniture in Tish’s home, and the couple’s outfits look luxurious in the lens of cinematographer James Laxton, who also worked with Jenkins on Moonlight.
Beale Street may play on similar visual notes of longing but on a warmer register than the cool blues and tones in Moonlight. As if the look of the film and its heartbreaking story weren’t soul-stirring enough, composer Nicholas Britell complements the imagery with possibly this year’s most moving score, a wave of slow violins that ebb and flow throughout the film’s most emotional scenes.
The problems of racial profiling and abuse Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) deal with are not relics of the past. Jenkins inserts striking black-and-white stills of the Bronx and Harlem in that era, of black men working on prison chain gangs and of white police officers enacting various acts of police brutality to underscore his point. Yet in this terrible situation and cruel world, Tish and Fonny find moments of sweetness, of loving caresses and the romantic feeling like they’re the only ones on a crowded subway. If Beale Street Could Talk is at once a tribute to love and a call for its defense against racist hatred, all told in an artfully composed tragedy.